Ken Campbell was a writer, actor, director and legendary prankster, who had a profound influence on the careers of some of Britain’s best-loved entertainers – among them Terry Johnson and Jeremy Stockwell, whose two-man show marks the tenth anniversary of their friend’s death.
The Ken experience begins with Tim Shortall’s set; stepping inside The Bunker is like going back in time to the 1970s. There’s plush pink carpet everywhere you look, a smell of incense hanging in the air, and a random assortment of audience seating choices, from cushions to bar stools.
The format of the show, directed by Lisa Spirling, is equally unusual, and sees Johnson (in the programme named as The Writer but in reality speaking as himself) presenting from a lectern for the majority of its 90-minute duration. Meanwhile Jeremy Stockwell roams the theatre as Ken, spending more time among the audience than he does on stage (though that doesn’t mean he isn’t participating in the show – far from it). Both men appear throughout to be enjoying themselves immensely, not least when the script – deliberately or not, it’s impossible to tell – goes out the window.
Ken is difficult to put into any particular box; I can best describe it as a hybrid of part theatre, part stand-up, part eulogy, and it’s this last that leaves the deepest impression. Among other anecdotes, we learn how Ken and Terry met in a chance encounter, witness their collaboration on a notorious 24-hour production at the Edinburgh Fringe, and hear about a later, equally infamous, attempt to stage The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy – an attempt that marked the end of Terry Johnson’s acting career (until now, at least).
Johnson is open and honest about his tempestuous relationship with Campbell and his own journey of self-discovery as a result of their friendship. Despite all the ups and downs, there’s an obvious affection there as he looks back with a wry smile on their madcap adventures, and the play closes with a poignant reflection on Campbell’s funeral and the legacy he left behind.
Jeremy Stockwell’s performance, in contrast to Johnson’s quiet dignity, is brash, unembarrassed, and not afraid to improvise. Even for those of us not familiar with the real Ken, there’s such conviction in his portrayal that it’s easy to believe we’re in the presence of the man himself, though he slips just as easily into other impressions, from Irish actor John Joyce to theatre director Trevor Nunn. His performance is exciting to watch because – like Campbell – he’s entirely unpredictable and we never quite know what he might say or do next.
Ken is a moving, warm tribute to an unforgettable character. There’s no doubting the sincerity of the performance or the sentiments expressed, but the show stops short of becoming maudlin; as Johnson points out, Ken – who reminded his friends from beyond the grave that “funeral” is an anagram of “real fun” – would have hated that. Like all the best memorials, this is a joyful and more than a little bonkers celebration of a unique life and personality, and through it Ken lives on.
Ken is at The Bunker until 24th February.
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